Club to Catwalk: Fashion in the 1980s at The V&A

There are always two sides to a story but, let’s face it, most people’s perception of the ’80s isn’t generally ecstatic. You can’t really blame them if you contemplate the multitude of sins the decade unleashed. Bring the subject up and only the least fondly-remembered key words immediately spring to mind: Thatcherism, the Falklands war, the miners’ strike, Clause 28, consumerism, materialism, greed, yuppies, the list goes on ad infinitum.

The cold war climaxed, or anti-climaxed, as people rushed out in their droves to buy the Jane Fonda work-out video, but sat at home religiously watching Dallas, The A-Team and Neighbours. Mainstream fashion triggered an abundance of gaudy clothing, shoulder pads, leotards, leg warmers and shockingly foul hairstyles. The nation at large succumbed to power dressing and label mania, while music in the charts mostly bordered on perfect bad taste. Wham, Go West, T’Pau, Phil Collins, Joe Dolce, Paul Young, Sonia, to name but a few, well and truly drove Sony Walkman and ghetto blaster aficionados to distraction. You would’ve been forgiven to think that Britons had been brain-washed or simply cloned into a herd of sheep.

Cat, Alex and Tish wear head-to-toe Bodymap. Nicole wears Galliano shirt and skirt © alexgerry

But hang on, I hear you cry, this is crap, this is biased, this is wrong! How about the other end of the scale, the good ’80s, the credible ’80s, the amazing ’80s? Yes indeed, I’m with you on that, so let me move on very swiftly to the other side of the story.

Thank god there was an alternative, the underground realm within which lurked an ever-expanding avant-garde of fashionistas, clubbers, artists and musicians who were keen on making their presence felt. Note that the phenomenon neatly and conveniently coincided with the dawn of the decade, very much a case of out with the old, in with the new.

Cat wears a John Crancher jacket, Bodymap hat and trousers, Alex wears Bodymap coat, hat and belt and a Pam Hogg two-piece from the Cabbage Patch collection, John Sex wears a Red or Dead black bomber and Samantha Fox ripped jeans © alexgerry

With Punk street and club fashion gained more interest than ever from the media. New magazines, the likes of i-D, The Face and BLITZ showed that anyone with the right attitude and a good look to boot could be featured in their pages, just as easily as these guys would get into the clubs. Let’s not forget that in those pre-Internet, pre-social networking and pre-smartphone days, image and personality were paramount. We couldn’t hide behind emails, texts or tweets , we actually had to talk to each other and not just on land lines but – shock! horror! – actually face to face! Suddenly, on-trend circles embraced the new wave, the new romantics and the synthesizers whole-heartedly.

Bodymap designs © alexgerry

The Blitz club symbolized this surge of infectious energy, talent, looks and cutting edge electronic music. Like other seminal clubs before and afterwards, it provided an invaluable platform to its patrons. More than just a dive to go to and be seen at (and it was a dive), it felt rather like a laboratory of talent, much like Taboo later on, where a burgeoning new generation of hungry kids – the product of the ’60s’ baby boom – began to show off and throw their weight. Steve Strange (being at the helm never stops networking!), George O’Dowd, Rusty Egan, Steven Linard, Steven Jones, Judy Blame, Iain Webb, the Spandau boys, Sade, Robert Elms and so many others, saw their life change almost overnight and forever as a direct – or indirect – result of patronizing The Blitz. Some of those kids, such as Pam Hogg, became designers simply because they couldn’t afford to buy clothes to wear out and because they didn’t like anything the high street had on offer. Dressing up was never about being fashionable, but about experimenting, customising, adding things to garments, deconstructing them, in fact whatever took your fancy so long as it looked cool at the very least. The club and fashion scenes felt vibrant again and, of course, very exciting. All things considered, and worlds apart from the mainstream, the ’80s proved to be an exhilarating decade to live through after all. However, more than at any other time, you had to sort the wheat from the chaff and stand your ground. You certainly needed discriminating taste and discernment to “get it” and reap the rewards.

Bodymap ©alexgerry BOY designs © alexgerry

The V&A obviously had a field day delving into this incredible wealth of youth culture to celebrate the fashion in the 1980s. Claire Wilcox, aided by Wendy Dagworthy, herself a significant designer of the decade, lovingly curated this unprecedented exhibition. The many garments on show, impeccably displayed on mannequins, are accompanied by informative notes and quotes from some of the era’s movers and shakers. Most note-worthy amongst the clubland designers’ models, Leigh Bowery’s v-shape orange & yellow striped shirt/dress, Rachel Auburn’s un-PC but gorgeously cut Swastika top and Pam Hogg’s fetish wear. It’s equally fascinating to see early items by myriad pre-global fashion luminaries, the likes of John Galliano (the pink muslin gown from the Fallen Angels collection), Vivienne Westwood (items from the Pirate collection), Michiko Koshino (the inflatable plastic fabric) and Katharine Hamnett (the slogan T-shirts).

Leigh Bowery designs © alexgerry Westwood designs © alexgerry

With hindsight and looking at the gob-smacking displays, it is now safe to say that the jewel in the crown happens to be Bodymap, i.e. David Holah and Stevie Stewart. They proved to be the unsung and almost forgotten heroes of British fashion at its most innovative, yet the label had not only become clubland’s favourite, but also its most affordable. Besides the two floors of exhibits, the small club room runs video footage on a loop, mainly scenes filmed at Taboo and Kinky Gerlinky, which in actual fact took place in the mid ’90s for the latter. That proved to be the only anachronism I picked up on at an otherwise perfectly executed documentation of how we used to live and what we used to wear. Most of the designs on display wouldn’t be out of place in the clubs right now. That naturally vindicates the designers’ original experimental vision, which was often dismissed by mainstream fashion as utterly ridiculous. This is an absolute treasure-trove for young designers in search of inspiration and for anyone with an interest in style and innovation. If only I’d kept the outfits I had then, I could go out tonight and feel like the epitome of cool once again!

Club to Catwalk runs until 16 February 2014.

Words & pictures: Alex Gerry

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